Monday, February 2, 2015

This is your brain on stress

As college students, the word stress isn’t new to us. Even more so as graduate students, stress seems to be an intricate part of our daily lives. From studying for midterms to working and doing research, we constantly have a huge load on all of our backs - the cycle never ceases. Luckily for us, our lovely professors have provided us with the tools we need to reduce stress, as seen below. 


Despite the bad rep of stress, some stress can actually be good for us. An example would be acute stress, which can lead to the fight or flight response. This response occurs when our bodies feel “threatened” or tends to occur when we’re the center of attention. Acute stress though, can lead to optimal alertness and performance1. For example, are you getting married soon? I’m sure walking down that aisle will be both stressful yet exciting at the same time!
  

Chronic stress on the other hand, may have a negative impact on your body. Why would this be the case? Let’s take a look at what’s happening inside the organ that perceives stress: the brain.


Your brain going crazy!

When the body is under chronic stress, an organ called the adrenal gland begins to secrete steroid hormones called glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids consist of cortisol and epinephrine (more commonly known as adrenaline). These hormones cause changes in the area of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in short as well as long-term memory2.   Thus, when our body is under chronic stress, it impairs our cognitive abilities.

In addition, researchers found that when animal models were induced to chronic stress, cells throughout the nervous system (called neurons) begin to shrink3. This occurred mainly in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex (also responsible for memory and attention span). Furthermore, scientists also found that there was an enlargement of the neurons within the amygdala and orbitofrontalcortex3. These areas are involved with fear, anxiety, and aggression. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that individuals who are under chronic stress not only tend to forget things, but also tend to be moody at times.

Neurons can change size when I'm stressed out?!

How else does stress negatively affects us? We all know that sleep deprivation is a big one, but studies have also shown that chronic stress can trigger excessively eating of comfort foods. For example, one study found that when electrical stimulations were measured within the hippocampus of stressed individuals, there was not only greater activity, but these activities were associated with scores on “emotional eating” measures2. In other words, more stress equals more food intake, which can lead to an increase in body weight.  

Please don't judge me...I'm stressing out!

Stress is inevitable. At some point within our lives, we all go through it, but there are also ways we can significantly reduce it. How? One solution is to engage in physical activity2. Studies have shown that regular physical activity can induce neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) within the hippocampus, most notably in the region called the dental gyrus. This is thought to be promoted through a compound called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1)2

Working out is good for your brain!

If physical activity isn’t enough for you, look no further than to your friends and families. Social support – having regular contact with your friends and families, has been shown to decrease chronic stress by boosting your morality and confidence. We all need a shoulder to lean on once in a while, and there is no shame in that. In addition, talking about the things that makes you stress out can really help.

With all of that said, to all my friends in graduate school, I know it gets pretty rough sometimes (or at most times), but just remember that we’re all here to support each other. Once this chaotic storm is over, we won’t be the same and we may not even remember how we got through it. But, I know one thing is for sure: we will all make it through together.   

"I cannot even imagine where I would be today were it not for that handful of friends who have given me a heart full of joy. Let's face it, friends make life a lot more fun." - Charles R. Swindoll

by 

Kevin Minh Tran
References

2.      McEwen, B. S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain. Physiological Reviews, 87(3), 873–904. doi:10.1152/physrev.00041.2006

Pictures (as seen in order)

2.       http://www.cartoonstock.com/directory/w/wedding_ceremonies.asp
8.       BIO502 Facebook page 


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